(2017) Anne Leckie, Orbit, £16.99, hrdbk, 441pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50695-1
Provenance by Anne Leckie is a standalone novel set in the same universe as her previous series. I had not read any of Leckie's previous works and I found her reputation a little intimidating. The awards (Hugo, Clarke (SF book), Nebula, Locus and BSFA ) and praises heaped on Ancillary Justice led me to worry that the books would be dry and worthy... But I was glad to be proven wrong. Which is not to say this novel is not worthy, but just to say that it was easy to read, a delightfully engaging story.
The tale is one of Ingray, a young girl determined to prove her political worth to her adopted mother in a last-ditch attempt to be appointed successor rather than her brother. She arranges to get the son of a political opponent out of Compassionate Removal, which is a kind of jail, from which nobody returns. When she is finally in possession of the young man she realises she has no way of knowing who he really is or of proving it to others, nor can she guarantee that the young man, whoever he really is, is willing to play the political game she wanted. Complications arise in the form of alien cultures, treaties and hostage situations, all of which Ingray must get through in some way.
The plot keeps bringing the reader back to the title, Provenance, where has the young person that Ingray bought come from, what is his history? Also, the culture Ingray lives in places great value on documents and objects that were present at important moments of their personal or cultural history, but what if the vast majority of these treasured items were fakes? Do they gain importance by what they represent to people even if that is a lie? Does where an object or person has come from define their worth? These are all issues that Ingray puzzles with while saving lives, making friends, maybe even finding love, but certainly making great strides to deciding who she is and what she really values.
Despite the reasonably complex alien cultures that Ingray lives and operates in, the reader can grow to love this character as she thinks her way around all the political twists and turns that are being thrown at her.
Leckie uses gender neutral pronouns as the default, switching to male or female if this is defined by the character themselves. This presents an uncomplicated answer to critics of the concept of chosen rather than assigned gender. Same gender relationships are shown to be unremarkable, perhaps something that our own culture has not quite mastered. Other forms of love are shown, bonds of family and caring irrespective of biological relation or even of being the same species, often misunderstood, but there all the same.
Provenance is a heart-warming coming of age tale, that leaves us all a glimmer of hope that maybe love can stretch across gaps of caste, culture, gender and even species, if only we would allow it.
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